David Geffen Hall
01/09/2020 - & January 10*, 11, 2020
Edvard Grieg: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 16
Richard Strauss: An Alpine Symphony, Op. 64
Paul Lewis (piano)
New York Philharmonic, Daniel Harding (conductor)
P. Lewis (© Kaupo Kikkas)
“To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”
Okay, two facts to get out of the way at the outset:
1. Contrary to popular rumor, Glenn Gould was most likely not a distant cousin of Edvard Grieg.
2. Richard Strauss was indeed president of Hitler’s Reichsmusikkammer and even dedicated a song to Joseph Goebbels.
There was a very tall edifice in the back of the stage this afternoon as the Philharmonic continued its 2020 with a matinee concert. Many in the audience might have wondered what this behemoth was and why was it there, but those of us who had more familiarity with today’s repertoire and, in my particular case, experience as part of a percussion section, knew that it was a thunder sheet, patiently waiting for the climax of the Strauss on the program. We would all have to wait almost two hours to hear its distinctive roar.
There were many substitutions in the orchestra this day as the Christmas vacation was still in effect for many of the players. Missing, for example, were the first violin and viola, although there was no perceived downside to this realignment of troops. Daniel Harding led a fine effort in the concerto, however the soloist, Paul Lewis, left a lot to be desired.
It was not as if the soloist were inadequate, rather he was just not at his best this day. At least at three distinct times, Mr. Lewis did not escape passages quickly enough, leaving us all with a hangover of overtones from notes not abandoned in a timely manner. This lack of attention to detail began to irritate after a short time, as if we had all paid good money and our precious attention for a rather amateurish performance. The Grieg is a concerto on the edge of profundity at the best of times. This day it was on the outside looking longingly, but not satisfyingly, at a more cohesive center. Nevertheless, Mr. Lewis was given a huge ovation for what seemed a disproportionate effort.
The performance of the Strauss was excellent and so I will take a moment this time to reflect on other matters. There is a very good and deeply felt emotional reason why the works of this composer are hardly ever programmed in Great Britain. Strauss was not only a sympathizer but an official in the Nazi administration. Here he is in his own words:
“It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity...I shall call my alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature...”
There were, of course, some clunkers in the performance, including some surrealistic high notes in the horns, but overall this was fine music-making. Not a bad effort for a concert still under the influence of vacations, but there was certainly room for improvement.